Razor Mountain Development Journal #8

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!

Last Time

Last time, I outlined chapters 3 and 4, continuing Christopher’s story, and chapter 5, continuing God-Speaker’s.

Christopher Takes a Risk

So far, Christopher seems to have gotten lucky. He survived the fall from an airplane and found the bunker. Now, he finds himself safe in the bunker, but lost in the wilderness. He is naturally inclined to avoid risk, but he begins to think he has no choice.

In keeping with his character, he evaluates his options before he does anything. He doesn’t know much about the area. He hikes around the woods near the bunker. He has a difficult-to-interpret map from the bunker, which might point him toward other landmarks. He has a good quantity of food and supplies from the bunker.

He also has no illusions about his lack of skill in wilderness survival. The snow is now fairly deep, especially the drifts that form in this craggy, mountainous terrain. His leg is feeling better, but still not completely healed. He knows it would be easy to overextend himself.

Christopher ultimately decides that he needs to go out exploring, but he is the sort of person who will first engineer some kind of test run to gain confidence. He thinks he may have an idea of how to interpret the map, but if he’s correct, it will entail days of travel to get to any of the spots marked on it. He will need to be able to travel for days over difficult terrain, carry enough supplies to stay alive, and keep himself warm on cold nights.

Christopher’s Story Beats

Getting meta for a moment, there are a few things I want to accomplish with this section of Christopher’s story.

First, Christopher has to overcome his fear and set out. He’ll make some timid progress. This is just enough to push him to take a bigger risk, actually heading out into the wilderness far enough that he can’t get back to the bunker by nightfall.

As soon as he’s in a situation where he can’t easily back out, I want the story to start beating him down. The terrain becomes more difficult than he expected. His equipment breaks. He twists the ankle that was starting to heal. And it snows again.

At that point, I have Christopher good and miserable. Everything is going wrong and he’s more than a day away from the bunker. It will be a long, hard journey just to get back to his safe spot. His prison. That gives him an even more difficult choice: does he continue, hoping to reach one of the points marked on his map, or does he go to all that work just to get back to his starting point, worse-off than he was before?

All of this should lead into him making the tough choice to keep going. We can feel proud of his perseverance in the face of all these difficulties, and fighting against his own personality.

So, he continues, and manages to get to the spot marked on the map. At first, he finds nothing. He searches. Finally, he finds what the mark on the map means. It is another bunker: a different, smaller structure. This one is ruined, broken and burnt. It looks like it was destroyed decades ago.

That forces another decision on him, similar to the first, but with much higher stakes. He still has the choice to continue or go back. The next mark on the map is further away. He doesn’t think he has enough supplies to get to this new place, or to get back to the bunker, and his leg is in bad shape.

Wrapping up Act I

Those beats probably get me more than halfway into Act I. From that point, I need to start moving the plot toward the action that I know should happen before the act is over. Christopher being in dire straits is a good opportunity for Amaranth, the exile hunter, to give him some help, providing the first sign that good things can actually happen to Christopher in this book (even if they’re few and far between).

From there, it’s a matter of Christopher continuing toward Razor Mountain, gaining some confidence in his own ability to solve problems on the fly. He eventually meets Amaranth and she brings him to her people, the exiles. But that’s all for another day. For now, I need to turn some of this into more chapter outlines.

Chapter Outlines

  • Chapter 6 – God-Speaker chapter. TBD.
  • Chapter 7 – Christopher decides to investigate the closest marked point on the map. He collects all the equipment he thinks he will need. He tries camping outside the bunker to get comfortable with it. By the end of the chapter, he feels ready to do a test excursion.
  • Chapter 8 – Christopher hikes a half-day out, sets up a camp site, tears it down, and returns to the bunker. He has some troubles with his equipment. He gets a little lost. He’s tired, and it’s very late by the time he gets back to the bunker. He decides to rest up and plan for the actual journey to the mark on the map.
  • Chapter 9 – Christopher sets out in perfect weather. He travels most of the day, then sets up camp. Everything goes smoothly this time, and he feels good. He sleeps.
  • Chapter 10 – God-Speaker chapter. TBD.
  • Chapter 11 – Christopher wakes up when his tent collapses in the night. There has been a huge snowfall. He does his best to jury-rig a lean-to, but it goes poorly. He gets no more sleep before morning and is forced to eat and pack in heavy snow. He is cold, wet and miserable. He decides to continue, but is once again full of uncertainty. His progress is very slow, he twists his ankle, and he still hasn’t gotten to his destination by nightfall. He’s exhausted, and he constructs something that barely qualifies as shelter.
  • Chapter 12 – The next day, Christopher feels that he is nearing his limits. He searches for the marked location for most of the day. Finally, he finds it, but it’s ruined. It was clearly smashed and burned decades ago.

What About God-Speaker?

I chose to not worry about God-Speaker for this session. I know I want to have several more God-Speaker chapters mixed in, but I have a good idea of what I want to do with Christopher, and I’m less certain about God-Speaker. As I get these Christopher chapters worked out, I can look for good places to add a few God-Speaker chapters, and worry about their content later.


I outlined five more chapters for Christopher, while reserving a couple of slots for God-Speaker chapters.

Next time, I’m going to figure out what should be going on in those chapters, and if those slots are enough. I want to get to a similar point in the God-Speaker storyline where I’m at least within sight of the end of Act I.

Reference Desk #4 – The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style is a book originally written in 1919, expanded and published in 1957, and updated three more times since. It’s a little book, less than 100 pages. It’s easy to read, and you can purchase both the physical and e-book editions for less than ten dollars. It’s opinionated, specific and packed with clear examples.

Useful and Concise

Some books on writing seem to be trying to convince the reader that they’re useful through sheer wordiness. They’re full of advice that sounds good, but immediately breaks down when you try to apply it to actual writing. The Elements of Style would never presume to waste your time like that. It takes its own advice. As rule #17 states:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.

Principles of Composition – #16

It’s full of simple, straightforward advice and rules with clear examples. The book often provides two examples side-by-side: one good and one bad. It is specific enough that you can take any of these rules and apply them to a manuscript in progress. I find that my writing always comes out a little better for it.

A Surprisingly Fun Read

While there are a handful of things that feel a bit outdated, even in the most recent revision, the majority of it is relatively timeless. As much as popular styles of writing and word choice change over time, good writing holds up well.

Through brevity and style, the authors show in the descriptions of their own rules what good, clear writing looks like. This is a book I reread, in whole or part, every year or two. I always come across some passage here or there that makes me smile. Despite being a prescriptive rule book, it’s often a delight to read.

If you’re a writer and you haven’t read this book, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed, and not at the expense of the work.

An Approach to Style – #1

Razor Mountain Development Journal #7

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!

Last Time

Last time I came up with brief descriptions of the hunter, Amaranth; the exile leader, Ema; and the exile traitors, the brothers Garrett and Harold. I named the main Razor Mountain group the 550th Infantry Regiment.

What Comes Next for Christopher?

I left off the chapter 1-2 outlines with Christopher in a mysterious bunker in the Alaskan wilderness, and God-Speaker’s tribe starting its migration. I don’t want to make it very obvious this early on, but I think chapter 2 is actually what Christopher sees in his troubled dreams while he’s collapsed in the bunker. Being in close proximity to Razor Mountain is bringing his God-Speaker memories closer to the surface.

I’m planning to intersperse God-Speaker chapters, and since I plan to have a larger amount of Christopher chapters, I think the next two should focus on him. He wakes up, shocked and damaged, takes stock of his surroundings, and has to decide what to do.

The first and easiest thing for him to do is explore the bunker. It’s a relatively small space, cleverly designed, but the decor hints that it’s actually quite old. There are beds, food, supplies and even weapons to sustain several people here almost indefinitely. And yet, it’s empty and unused. This appears to be a safe place for Christopher. Because of his personality, he’s inclined to stay put, but he also quickly realizes that there may be no help coming.

His next thought is to explore nearby, still close to the bunker. There is a radio, but it only picks up cryptic signals. Perhaps there is a high vantage point where he can look for settlements? Or a way to make a smoke signal?

After a few days, Christopher begins to understand (at least subconsciously) that he may be the only one who can get himself out of this situation. He has a stark choice. He can stay safe in the bunker, letting it become his prison, or he can choose to take some serious risks, which is probably the only way he will ever be found or manage to get home.

These chapters need to set up Christopher’s internal conflict, which will drive Act I: his fear of the unknown and his unhealthy aversion to risk vs. his need to act and take chances to get out of his current predicament.

The Next Two Chapter Outlines

Chapter 3 – Christopher wakes in the bunker, injured, but alive. He explores the bunker and finds food, beds, and geothermal technology that looks like 1950s science fiction. He finds a large, old radio, but nobody responds to him, and the only signal he can find is a cryptic numbers station that continually shifts frequencies. He also finds a map that has several locations marked, but no explanation of what those markings mean.

Chapter 4 – Days have passed, and Christopher is settling into a routine. He starts a bonfire outside the bunker and burns fresh pine boughs to create a column of smoke. He hikes the area around the bunker, but has found nothing but empty wilderness. It begins to snow heavily, and he returns to the bunker for the evening. He is restless, scared, and uncertain what to do.

What Comes Next for God-Speaker?

Travel and hardship.

God-Speaker’s Act I ends with him having lost his whole tribe, and being drawn into the depths of Razor Mountain, where he will find the artifacts. His first few chapters should be a succession of devents that wear him down and take away everything he cares about.

The tribe has already suffered loss. Now they are migrating, and since it’s the midst of an ice age, cold weather seems like an obvious challenge for them to face. Along with this, there is a lack of food. This is also what’s driving other tribes to migrate across the area.

I might also be able to use weather to make a small connection between Christopher’s chapter and the adjacent God-Speaker chapter. Christopher experiences a large snowfall, then God-Speaker does as well.

God-Speaker’s Chapter

Chapter 5 – God-Speaker travels with his tribe, carrying the stone god in a carrier on his back. It snows frequently for days, making travel more difficult. They consult the god to determine where to go. They attempt to hunt, but the hunting party encounters another band of travelers. They have a tense face-off, but do not fight. The hunting party returns empty-handed. Everyone is hungry.


I outlined three more chapters. I’m feeling pretty good about pushing through Act I chapter-level outlines. I think I will still have a lot to figure out when I get into Act II, so I may try to include some of that work in the next couple sessions.

Writing Spikes

My day job is software development, and once in a while I find some useful crossover in concepts between programming computers and writing fiction. Today, I’d like to take one of those software concepts – the “spike” – and apply it to fiction.

What is a Spike?

In software development, a spike is an experiment. It is writing code in order to answer a question or test a solution to a problem. Implicit in the idea of a spike is that this is “throwaway” code. It’s not expected to go into production.

When to Try a Spike

The goal of a spike is to take an infinite number of possible storylines and reduce them down to the best one. The most obvious place to try a spike is when you know your story could go in several interesting directions, and you’re not sure which one is the best option. Think of your story in terms of alternate universes. Each choice, each universe, differs at this specific point. As the author, it’s your job to find the most interesting universe, and discard the others.

A less obvious opportunity for a spike is when you don’t know where your story is going next. You may be doing some exploratory writing, and run into a bout of writer’s block. Or you may still be working on your outline. Often, when we feel like we have no ideas, we’re really just letting our inner editors censor us. Chances are, you have some “bad” ideas that you’re reflexively throwing away. Instead, use them as fuel for a spike.

The other useful time for a spike is when you reach an important inflection point in the story. This could be a major event for some of the characters, a big reveal, or a turning point in the plot. These are the moments that people talk about when they discuss books they love.

This might seem like a strange place to experiment. These moments are often the seeds of a story that first take shape in my mind, and make me want to write it in the first place. Why mess with a good thing?

Well, the human mind is lazy. Tropes and stereotypes thrive in comfortable, familiar territory. When we run with the first idea that comes to mind, those same well-worn, rehashed ideas can start to sneak in.

If these are the shiniest, most important bits of the story, shouldn’t they be as great as they can be? The worst that can happen is that you come up with bad alternatives, and you confirm that your original idea was the best.

The Steps of a Spike

You can do a spike during outlining, while writing, and even in revision (although you may end up making even more work for yourself). You just have to tailor your scope and output to where you are in the writing process.

First, get your mind into brainstorming mode. Define all the options. If you have a hard time coming up with possibilities, consider setting a specific number of options, and forcing yourself to come up with at least that many. Sometimes, great ideas come when we’re struggling, and we force ourselves to reach for the strange or unexpected. These options don’t have to be detailed. A list of bullet points is enough.

Once you have enough options, you’ll need to decide how many you want to pursue. A good default is three options, but this is entirely up to you. You may only have one – an alternative you want to try. Spikes are a balancing act. Remember, they’re designed to be disposable. You’re going to do some work, and then throw some of it away. Let that free you. That work isn’t wasted – it’s ensuring that whatever you decide to keep is the best it can be.

Next, it’s time to define the limits of your experiments. You can set a number of pages, number of words, or a time limit for each option. Once again, balance is key. Spend too much time or too many words on too many options, and the project will never be finished. The goal is to be confident about which option is best.

Evaluating the Results

Again, every spike is an experiment. You made your choices, and you wrote something for each one. You may have some additional notes as well. These are the results of your experiment. Now, you need to evaluate them.

If you have a confidant, spouse, editors or beta readers, and they’re willing to take a look, you may want to solicit feedback. They might see something special that you missed in one of your experiments. They might also catch a gaping plot hole. They might react more or less strongly than you expected.

Whether you get feedback from someone else, it’s time for a final decision. Evaluate each of your pieces and pick with the confidence that you’ve now thoroughly explored your options.

Finally, do some revision. If you felt hemmed-in by the time/page/word limits you set for yourself, now is your opportunity to expand and improve. Maybe you thought of something in paragraph ten that you could have set up more effectively in paragraph two. Like a science experiment that gets refined into a commercial product, you can take your proof of concept and polish it to perfection.

That’s it! A spike really isn’t complicated – just a controlled comparison between a set of options. But it’s good to remind ourselves that sometimes it’s okay to try things out, even when it might feel like a waste of words. You never know when that strange idea you set aside might change your story for the better.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #6

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!

Last Time

I made an initial attempt at God-Speaker’s act-level outline. I also started chapter-level outlines with the first two chapters.

Other Characters

I spent a little time thinking about secondary characters that Christopher will encounter in the first act or early in the second act.

  • Hunter – This girl, a young teenager, was born with a congenital disorder of the throat that prevents her from speaking. She is one of the exiles from Razor Mountain, and the most adept at surviving in the wilderness. She happens upon Christopher while he’s traveling and helps him. I felt like an unusual name, so I’m going to call her Amaranth.
  • Exile Traitors – A pair of brothers who have become disillusioned with the exiles. They’re looking for a way to get back in the good graces of the main group, and attempt to trade Christopher for forgiveness of their desertion. I’m calling them Garret and Harold.
  • Exile Leader – A woman named Ema. She became skeptical of the propaganda fed to the inhabitants of Razor Mountain and led the other exiles to try to escape.

Razor Mountain Factions

So far, I see the need for three factions: the exiles, the “main” faction, and the council who are the shadowy ruling group that knows about God-Speaker. The relationship between exiles and “main” group is straightforward. The exiles left the main group, distrusting the propaganda. The two exile traitors were initially excited to leave Razor Mountain, but their opinions quickly changed once they realized how difficult it would be to survive in the wilderness long enough to find civilization – especially since the residents of Razor Mountain don’t really know much about the outside world.

The interactions of the council and the “main” group are less clear. There are several problems to solve.

  1. The council probably replenishes its members from the main group. How does this happen?
  2. The council has to exercise control over the main group. What propaganda do they use to pacify the main group?
  3. How does the main group see the outside world, and their place in it? Does anyone from Razor Mountain go out into the outside world or interact with it? Even if they somehow remain hidden and are largely self-sufficient, they’ll probably need some interaction with the outside world.
  4. Names. As usual, when I notice myself needing to type vague names over and over (like “the main group”), I know it’s time to come up with a name. What does this main group call themselves?

To enforce order and strict hierarchy, I think it makes sense for the main group to have a militaristic bent, which means military hierarchy and ranks. I don’t know too much about military organization, so I did some searching. Generally, it seems that divisions contain brigades/groups, which contain regiments. Regiments are up to about 5000 soldiers, containing a few battalions.

For a robust, reasonably functional, mostly self-sufficient society, my gut instinct is that hundreds (and probably a few thousand) people are necessary. So a regiment is a good top-end for the size of the main group. I picked a random 3-digit number that’s well above any modern US regiment number: the 550th Infantry Regiment. I’m thinking that the propaganda of Razor Mountain claims that this military organization is a secret part of the US armed services, even though there is no actual connection.

Numeric identifiers don’t stick well in most people’s minds, so my inclination is to give the regiment a nickname. Many of the nicknames of Army regiments are cryptic or related to some obscure historical context. There might be some interesting context for this group at some point, but for now, I’ll just give them an animal appropriate to their surroundings – “the Lynx.”

Moving to Scrivener

Now that I’m into the chapter outlines and I’m starting to gather a variety of different notes – research, factions, and characters, I’m at the point where I generally start moving everything into a Scrivener project. Scrivener is a tool that merges word processor and writing project management. If you’re curious, I just wrote a whole post about Scrivener.

I got my paltry two chapter outlines into Scrivener, and I’ll be adding to character descriptions and other notes as I go.


I came up with brief descriptions for the hunter, Amaranth; the exile leader, Ema; and the exile traitors, the brothers, Garrett and Harold. Amaranth is the most important for the first act. I named the “main group” at Razor Mountain the 550th Infantry Regiment (the Lynx).

Next time, I’d like to get more Act I chapters outlined, and let any challenges that come up dictate what I work on next.

Reference Desk – #3 – Scrivener

What’s the Good Word (Processor)?

Scrivener is a word processor and organizational tool for writers. I’ve been using it for years, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon. This might seem odd, when we have good general-purpose word processors like Microsoft Word and Google Docs, and good general-purpose organizational tools like Trello. However, what I like best about Scrivener is the combination of organizational and writing features, and that it caters specifically to writers rather than trying to be everything to everyone.

Weaving a Story

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m more of an outliner and planner than an exploratory writer, but the truth is that my process always varies from project to project, and it’s never perfectly linear. Some of my plans change in the process of writing, and ideas that started out vague necessarily become more detailed as more words land on the page. Planning, organization and writing are interleaved.

When an idea starts to develop in my head enough to resemble a story, I often start by putting down a few paragraphs in a plain text or Word file. Inevitably, I quickly reach a point where I stop and evaluate: I have som ewords – maybve the start of the story, or a scene that interests me – and some ideas. This is the point where the text file suddenly feels useless. I need to organize my thoughts, extrapolate from them, and figure out how they might fit together.

Usually, that’s the point when I open up a project in scrivener. Within a project, I can have many files: chapters, character descriptions, research notes, and anything else I want to track.

Scrivener's "Binder" - a simple file tree

This might seem like a small thing – a collection of files in a simple hierarchy – but I find it much more effective to have everything for the story one click away (as opposed to files in a collection of folders). Even when I’m in the middle of editing or writing, I can quickly find my notes. Scrivener includes some templates for characters and settings that you can use or ignore, as you prefer. Parts, chapters and scenes can also be broken down in as much detail as you would like. I personally prefer to have each chapter in its own document, but you can choose more or less granularity.


When I write the outline to a novel, I generally take a two-pronged approach. First, I tend to write out chapter summaries in sequence, in a single file. When I start writing a chapter, I take that summary and paste it into the chapter document’s “synopsis” field.

In addition to the file tree, Scrivener has a cork-board view. In this view, you can see notecards with the synopsis of each chapter (or even each scene, if you like). Reordering is as simple as dragging notecards on the board, or documents in the tree.


When it comes to writing, Scrivener doesn’t compete for the most comprehensive formatting options. It can’t do the fancy layouts of something like InDesign or Publisher, or even Word. It gives you the standard tools you’d expect: text fonts, colors, sizes, emphasis, alignment; a handful of preset options like quote, heading or title; and some basic layout elements like lists and tables.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough. I’m not designing a magazine, I’m writing fiction. That said, you may find the options a bit limited if you’re trying to put together something like a travel guide, where you have lots of pictures, maps, or charts among and alongside your words.

If you like to split up your long works into individual chapter or scene documents, you can easily see them combined together by selecting multiple documents in the tree and selecting the “composite” view. Scrivener will instantly stitch all the documents together in the order you specify (with or without page breaks).

Project Tracking

Scrivener allows you to set word count goals for an entire project, or a single session – useful if you’re tracking progress for a deadline, or participating in something like National Novel Writing Month. You can also pull up stats like word counts or printed/paperback page counts for the entire project, or an arbitrary selection. Tools like Word Frequency can even occasionally help you spot your writerly tics.

There are also color-coded labels and keywords that can be applied to documents and searched. This is honestly not a feature I have ever used, and it seems a bit clunky, but if you’re incredibly organized and want to put in the extra effort to be able to cross-reference certain things across many documents, it may be useful. For me, the full-text search has generally been adequate.

Other Features

Scrivener includes a few other features I haven’t used, mostly because they’re for other styles of writing. It supports scriptwriting in a number of different formats. It also handles bibliographies, citations, and footnotes. It includes some simple tools for translating or looking up terms via various websites (e.g. thesaurus and dictionary.com).

Backup and Sync

Unlike many products today, Scrivener is a desktop application. There is no web-only option. It’s available on Windows, Mac, and iOS, and the different versions must be purchased separately (although they’re still relatively cheap, and there are slightly discounted bundle deals).

Scrivener also doesn’t handle its own backups or syncing between devices. It does offer some support for integrating with Dropbox for backup and sync, and I’ve found that this works pretty well between my Windows PC, somewhat outdated MacBook Air, and my phone.

Scrivener is not a cloud application by any stretch of the imagination, and this is one of the few places where I personally feel there is some room for improvement. I don’t particularly want an online Google-Docs-style editor, but seamless syncing with less setup would be nice.


Scrivener provides some import and export options, which are mostly useful if you want to pull in plain text files or get them out of Scrivener as plain ol’ text. It also offers “compilation” options, which combine the text of the chapters or scenes into a single file, with many formats available. This can be used for e-publishing (epub, mobi, PDF), or to import into other tools (Word, Open Office, HTML, Post Script, Final Draft, LaTex). You can even print, if you prefer words on paper.

Try it Out

Scrivener is one of my most-utilized writing tools. It’s not perfect, but it contains a blend of features that really work well for me. In a world where everything seems to be subscription-based, I also appreciate their customer-friendly business model. They offer a 30-day free trial (that’s days-used, not calendar days), and if you do buy, it’s a one-time purchase to own the current version forever.

It’s also worth noting that they have modest student discounts, and they typically offer discounts for participants of NaNoWriMo in November, if that’s something you’re into.

Check it out at Literature and Latte.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #5

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!

Last Time

Last time, I decided that Christopher has trauma in his back-story: an accident he blames himself for, which killed his brother. As a result, he’s risk-averse to an unhealthy degree.

I also put together the first act-level outline of the story:

  • Act I – Christopher crash-lands, surviving but injured. He finds a bunker, and signs that people once lived here, but the surrounding wilderness seems empty. Lost and alone, he must work up the courage to strike out and search for a way back to civilization. He travels to Razor Mountain, encountering one mysterious stranger who helps him, and others who shoot at him from a distance. He must also survive the wilderness.
  • Act II – Christopher meets the Razor Mountain outcasts, and learns about the main group from them. He’s brought to the main group, imprisoned and interrogated. He comes to the attention of the ruling council.
  • Act III – Christopher learns that he is God-Speaker. He navigates the politics of the council, trying to learn who is with him and against him. He recovers his memories and has to decide to use the artifacts to undo everything he has created at Razor Mountain.

God-Speaker’s Outline

God-Speaker has his own arc that runs in parallel to Christopher. Christopher’s first act ends with him finding Razor Mountain, and it would be nice symmetry to have God-Speaker first find the mountain at the end of the first act too.

One of the biggest reveals of the story is that Christopher is God-Speaker. It makes sense for God-Speaker’s story to wrap up at the same time as this reveal. After that, Christopher’s arc and conflict merge with God-Speaker’s, and the story wraps up.

The middle of God-Speaker’s story feels like it breaks down into two sections. The first section is about building up everything that Christopher finds at Razor Mountain. God-Speaker spends thousands of years building up and maintaining Razor Mountain, so that portion of the story will need to be told in a handful of vignettes across that huge span of time.

The second part will be about the machinations of his inner circle, leading to his eventual downfall. Comparatively, this section will cover a much shorter span of time.

This is even rougher than Christopher’s, but enough for the first attempt at the act-level God-Speaker outline.

  • Act I – God-Speaker’s tribe is attacked by other migrating tribes. They travel, and the tribe members die off one by one, until God-Speaker is alone and lost in the mountains. The artifacts call out to him, and he follows a cave into the heart of Razor Mountain.
  • Act II – God-Speaker uses the artifacts and his newfound powers to gain control of several migrating tribes, bringing them to Razor Mountain. Over thousands of years, he grows more jaded and disinterested in the lives of the people he rules over, using them to further his own ends, build up his stronghold, and insulate himself from danger. He learns how to use the artifacts to keep himself alive and in power.
  • Act III – God-Speaker manipulates politics among his inner circle, allowing a plot against him to progress so that he can weed out disloyal followers. However, he underestimates his enemies and is thrown into a random new body: Christopher.

The First Two Chapter Outlines

With an act-level outline for Christopher and God-Speaker that’s more detailed at the start than the middle and end, I can at least start digging into the first few chapters.

Chapter 1 – Christopher wakes up on a small plane over the Alaskan wilderness. Everyone else is missing. With no parachute and running out of fuel, he jumps over open water. He survives the fall with an injured leg and manages to swim to shore. Freezing and hurt, he looks for shelter. He finds a strange door in a cliff side, with a number pad. He puts in random numbers, and the door unlocks. He stumbles inside, passing out from cold and exhaustion.

Chapter 2 – God-Speaker and his tribe prepare for the winter migration. He prepares the tribe’s stone god. Another tribe attacks. They’re driven off, but several members of his tribe are killed or injured in the process, and supplies are stolen. They begin the migration dispirited.


I created an act-level outline for God-Speaker and chapter outlines for the first two chapters – one following Christopher, and one flashing back to God-Speaker.

Next time, I’d like to think about some of the secondary characters that will be needed for the first act. I also need to think through the Razor Mountain factions more, and possibly continue developing chapter outlines.

Reference Desk – #2 – Interactive Fiction

Innovation in Fiction

As a software developer, innovation is part of my everyday life. My job is to grow and improve the software I’m responsible for. I use technologies that are regularly updated, and new tech is always being invented to improve on the old. Innovation is everywhere, and it’s constant.

As a writer, “innovation” is a much more nebulous term.

You might call challenging, complex language and structure innovative. James Joyce is popular largely because of this. Or you might consider experiments in formatting and typography to be innovative, such as Danielewski’s House of Leaves. But how innovative are these things, really? They’re still words, printed inside a book. You still read them from front to back. They’re still attempting to deliver a story from the writer to the reader.

Fiction has been around for so long, and it is so ubiquitous, that it’s difficult to find ways to truly innovate. But I’d argue there is at least one type of fiction that is genuinely innovating, by testing and expanding the boundaries of what fiction can be. As you might have guessed from the title, it’s called interactive fiction.

Where most fiction involves the creator (such as a writer or director) delivering a story to the consumer (a reader or viewer), interactive fiction turns this on its head, and says that the consumer should be an active participant in the story. This is a fairly broad scope, and can include media as diverse as books, movies and video games.

Choose Your Own Adventure

One of the most iconic forms of interactive fiction is the Choose Your Own Adventure book series that was popular in the ’80s and ’90s. This was probably my first experience with interactive fiction. These books, aimed at kids, contained a branching narrative that used a second-person perspective to make the reader the protagonist. Every few pages, the reader would be presented with a choice (usually with two options, occasionally with more). Each choice pointed the reader to a specific page where the story would continue.

These stories approached interactive fiction from the angle of books with choices, but this was the time period where personal computing was beginning to come into its own on a large scale, and others were approaching interactive fiction from a different direction: stories told through computer software.

Video Games

Games like Zork and its sequels provided a narrative in text, but also included game elements such as puzzles and simple battles. By using the computer to parse commands from the player, a much richer set of interactions could be developed. Even simple (and often cryptic) commands like “go north” or “hit troll” gave the player much more freedom than the binary options provided by Choose Your Own Adventure.

(Unfortunately, the promise of parsers that could effectively parse arbitrary plain-text commands from users never materialized. Modern computer scientists and tech giants still haven’t managed to produce AI that can carry on a simple conversation, decades later.)

As computer graphics advanced, these story-focused games would influence the graphical adventure games of the ’90s, popularized by LucasArts and Sierra, and role-playing games all the way up to the present day.

The limitations of early computer graphics were a boon to interactive fiction. Some games painted rich and detailed worlds in text at least partly because graphics were so limited. However, the graphics have become more and more advanced, effectively killing the commercial viability of genres like text and graphical adventure games.

In modern times, it’s still possible to find games that pride themselves on narrative depth – huge AAA role-playing and adventure games, and all manner of small-team indies. However, even as graphics and gameplay have advanced tremendously, there seems to be comparatively little exploration of how the player can interact with the narrative in interesting ways. Much of the interesting work on this front is happening not in the huge, successful game studios with multi-million dollar budgets, but in small, independent studios with niche audiences.

Fallen London

One such example is Fallen London, a browser game that has been around for a decade and continues to put out new content every few weeks. Fallen London has some of the classic video game trappings: character stats in the form of vague attributes (watchful, shadowy, dangerous, and persuasive), as well as an expansive item system. However, all of these systems work in service of the story. The story itself is branching and immense – millions of words doled out a few paragraphs at a time.

The story is the main content and the reward. Whereas most free games would ask players to pay for shiny graphical customizations and costumes, convenience features, or a bigger, sharper sword, Fallen London offers pay-to-play stories, and rewards cleverness or hard work with more words and perhaps the chance to learn something about a character or faction in the sprawling story.

Rather than the simple binary options of Choose Your Own Adventure, or the flexible-but-sometimes-inscrutable commands of Zork, Fallen London uses a system of semi-randomized “opportunity cards” that the player draws. Each card offers an opportunity – a small story or snippet of a larger narrative. Which cards can appear in a player’s deck depends on the location of their character, as well as the character’s attribute scores and qualities. Qualities can be anything from a profession to living arrangements to acquaintances to quirks of personality. The choices available are dependent on a wide variety of choices already made by the player along with a bit of luck and randomness.

This kind of game shows the immense range of possibilities available when game systems that have normally been used for gameplay are turned toward deep, interactive narrative, where the player can feel like their choices matter. Failbetter Games, the makers of Fallen London, have been coming up with new and innovative systems for interactive fiction for years.

Exploring Interactive Fiction

While interactive fiction remains something of a niche, it has many vibrant and growing communities. There has probably never been a better time to explore.

I’d highly recommend at least dabbling in Fallen London. It’s free to play, but has an energy system that limits how frequently the player can take action. They’ve also built up an impressive library of additional stories for purchase.

The Interactive Fiction tag on Steam shows hundreds of games, ranging from classic text-adventure RPGs to visual novels.

The Interactive Fiction Database, Interactive Fiction Archive, and the Interactive Fiction Community Forum are all great resources to find interesting works.

Writing Interactive Fiction

The quantity and quality of tools for writing interactive fiction has exploded in recent years.

To get started, or just play around a little, Twine and InkleWriter are two excellent, free tools that can be used without any programming experience.

However, depending on how elaborate you want to get, there are many, many tools. Some of these can be quite technical. At the most technical end of the spectrum, there are many interactive fiction writers who code their own engines so they can tell their stories with very specific forms of interaction. The IF Community Forum has a section dedicated to tools that is a great resource.

The Craft of Interactive Fiction

One of the most exciting things about IF is that it’s still a relatively new and fresh medium. Authors are still exploring how it can be used, and innovation is happening all the time. Much like traditional fiction, one of the best ways to learn is to read or play a few stories. There are also plenty of discussions going on if you like to dig deep into theory and analysis.

  • The Failbetter Blog – The makers of Fallen London have interesting insights on narrative structure, as well as making interactive fiction as a business.
  • Emily Short – The only individual I’ll mention here, and it’s because she is the most prolific and insightful author I’ve found on the topic of interactive fiction. Check out her blog and her talks. She also has some great resource lists for digging deeper.
  • The Interactive Fiction Community Forum – A wealth of discussion on the technical and literary details of writing IF.

Try it Out

This is a topic that really interests me, so I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it again in the future. For now, if it sounds interesting to you, try writing a bit of interactive fiction yourself, and let me know what you come up with!

Razor Mountain Development Journal #4

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead!

Last Time

Last time, I decided to call the stone-age version of Christopher “God-Speaker,” as the keeper of his tribe’s little stone god figure. I dipped my toes into the research on the first ancient migrants to North America. And I spent some time on the first two chapters – introducing Christopher to the perils and mysteries of Razor Mountain, then introducing God-Speaker and his tribe, who are about to be in desperate circumstances.

What Makes an Act?

When I’m just starting on an outline, the structure I start with is three acts. This is the boring default: beginning, middle and end, but it can change as needed, as the story begins to have its own unique shape. The beginning, the first act, is about setting up the conflicts and getting the characters into trouble. The middle, the second (and usually longest) act, is about the action of the characters in response to the conflicts, and the changes they undergo. The third and final act is about the peak of the conflict and its resolution, happy or unhappy. It’s also about how the characters change after facing it.

There are many ways to break out of the bog-standard three-act structure. For starters, characters don’t need to go through all these steps at the same time. There may be more than one middle act, structured around a series of conflicts. There may be false endings or dangling threads that tie into larger narratives (as with a series).

Some people seem to want to fight against the three-act structure. Nonetheless, three acts are a starting point that feels good, and helps me organize my early thoughts.

Conflicts and Changes

I honestly only have one character in the story at this point. Even if I treat Christopher and his alter-ego God-Speaker as distinct characters, that’s a little sparse to carry the whole book. I’m hoping that as I define their paths through the story, I’ll start to see some holes around that path where other characters can start to fit and develop.

We know at this point that God-Speaker comes to be something of a cult leader, a god-figure, and the “man behind the curtain” in Razor Mountain. He’s backed by the power of the artifacts. He’s a personality and a force to be reckoned with. I like the idea that Christopher, at least in the beginning, is none of those things.

Christopher’s path will be defined by the conflicts he’s up against, and how he changes in response to them. If he starts out mild-mannered, boring and a little unhappy with his lot in life, that gives him plenty of room to grow in response to the considerable hardship he’s about to face.

Like real people, characters are shaped by their experiences. Christopher starts out as a scaredy-cat, someone who always chooses the safe route, the easy way. So, why is that? Perhaps he has some trauma in his childhood that affected him, and this is the result?

I thought for a bit, and came up with this: Christopher was doing something foolish and dangerous as a child, and his older brother saved him from the consequences, but died in the process. Christopher, of course, felt guilty about this. His parents, having lost a child, became overly protective of the one they had left. And Christopher internalized this as an intense aversion to risk and danger. He turns inward and worries more and more about himself.

With this conflict, Christopher’s opportunity to change is to overcome his fears, to become less inward-looking. He is forced into situations where he has no choice but to take risks and face dangers. And ideally, he is forced to look outward at other people, and worry about them instead of just himself.

Charting a Course

Christopher starts out scared and alone after the plane crash. He ends the story having overcome his fear, and realizes that he (as the latest iteration of God-Speaker) is responsible for all sorts of bad things going on at Razor Mountain. (Details to be determined later.) Between these points are the three acts.

I like the idea of the first act being mostly focused on Christopher alone, trying to make his way through the wilderness and overcoming some of his own internal issues. However, I want to introduce another character as we approach the middle of the book. This is a person (maybe a child?) who Christopher barely sees, skulking in the trees or the rocky terrain, but who occasionally helps him out by guiding him to the right path, or providing a freshly-killed rabbit.

Along his journey, Christopher also has brief encounters with the “main” group of people living at Razor Mountain. I’m starting to have some ideas about Razor Mountain society, but I’ll come back to those next session. The main group is an insular and secretive group. Along his journey, Christopher’s only interaction with these people is through mysterious radio chatter, their artifacts and abandoned buildings, and in one case, their people shooting at him from a distance.

In the second act, I envision him arriving at Razor Mountain. The mysterious person who helped him leads him to her people – a group of outcasts from the main group. These are people who wanted to leave, which is not allowed. They hide from the main group, honing their survival skills in hopes of becoming skilled enough to travel to some distant town and make their way from there. Christopher can get a skewed idea of Razor Mountain society from these people, who have their own biased perspective as well as limited knowledge of what’s actually going on.

These outsiders will be excited by his arrival. He’s the only outsider they’ve ever met. But they’re disappointed when they find out he came to them trying to find his own way out.

Some of these outsiders are looking to get back into the good graces of the main group, and they decide to use Christopher as a bargaining chip. They bring him to the main group, where he is promptly imprisoned and interrogated to determine what he knows.

Through his interactions with these people, he tries to figure out what is actually happening in Razor Mountain. He tries to convince these people that what he tells them about the outside world is true. Eventually, his presence comes to the attention of the inner circle that actually wields power.

In the third act, he interacts with the inner circle, finding out more about how the people of Razor Mountain are deceived to control them. He has to navigate the politics of this small group, and eventually figure out which ones were trying to kill him, and which have his best interests at heart. Then he goes through the process of regaining all of God-Speaker’s memories.

At the end of the book, he must decide if he wants to put things back to the way they were, with himself as ruler of this little kingdom, or if he wants to change it and make things better.

There’s still a lot of detail that’s missing here, even in this simple outline, but it’s an adequate starting point. The first act feels most defined, while the latter 2/3 of the book are still mushy. As I create more detailed outline for the first part of the book, it will provide more foundation to flesh out the middle.


I made a first attempt at creating an act-level outline of the story. It’s useful to see where the plot is still really vague. It also helps to determine what the different groups of people are, and illustrate some of the other characters that can be fleshed out: the child-hunter who helps Christopher, some of the outsiders (including those who turn him in), the people he interacts with in the main group, and the secret inner circle members.

Next time, I’ll work on some of these characters, get into the detailed outline of the first act, or think more about God-Speaker’s back-story.